Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Getting Around in Suburbia

Two stories from this week's Crain's Chicago Business offer insight into the problems of mobility in suburbia. The first story documents the "targeting" of Hispanics by suburban taxi cab firms. Seeing a market opening amongst the nearly 1 million Latinos living in Chicago's suburbs, it seems that bad public transportation, language barriers, the inability of many recent immigrants to get drivers licenses and insurance, the significant costs of owning and maintaining a vehicle, and the need to travel disparate miles to reach shopping, work, and home are creating an emergent class of Latino private transport entrepreneurs.

Spanish-speaking riders may feel more comfortable catching rides with cabbies with whom they can effectively communicate--fending off the feeling that they may be getting swindled. Like many new immigrant sub-markets, there is a relatively small number of cab owners who, according to the article:
all know each other and have established informal territories that avoid direct competition.
While I can appreciate the filling of a market demand by these new cab companies which are basically micro-enterprises that have low profit margins, this highlights the real tragedy of transportation policy in the U.S. This system flourishes through the exploitation of economically marginal populations who have no other choice than to pay the high price of taxis to get around. A sound transportation policy that takes into account the need for multiple forms of mobility in the suburban setting helps not only the economically marginalized, but everyone since the barrier to access is so low. Currently, public policies overwhelmingly subsidize a privatized form of mobility that has a significant barrier for entry. This seems rather unjust.

To recognize the absurdity of this situation, we now turn to the second article in this week's Crains. Titled, "Mall-to-Mall Trolley Service," it takes us to the Chicago suburban hell of Schaumburg--an infamous "Edge City" similar to those profiled by Joel Garreau in his oft-cited book.

Schaumburg is the home to the mega-Woodfield Mall, an Ikea, a Costco, and other retail establishments typical of the sprawl environment. Of course, these monstrosities were designed almost exclusively for automobile traffic--minimal sidewalks, no street life, oceans of parking lots, etc... With the continuing expansion of commercial development, the planners found that [gasp!] people were driving from one big-box shopping establishment to another--all of which are in relative proximity to one another, but impossible to reach as a pedestrian. The arterial roads have been suffering congestion, making it difficult for shoppers to reach the big boxes.

The solution? "Trolleys"! Now, we're not talking real trolleys here, but rather the absurdist saccharine dress-up game to make a bus not look like a bus. Richard Bascomb, Schaumburg's transportation planner explains the logic of the trolley this way:
"We view the trolleys as a convenience to customers, a fun way to get them from one shopping destination to another," Mr. Bascomb says. "We also see them as a way to get people out of their cars and off the roads."


Well, I guess the Schaumburg shoppers don't see the same opportunity for "fun" or "convenience" that Bascomb intends--as the article indicates, last year's annual ridership was at an anemic 78,000 passengers. To keep this in perspective, this commercial district attracts 100,000 cars PER DAY.

A look at the system map shows why the trolley is an utter failure:



To get from Ikea to the "Streets of Woodfield" would take you a half hour given all of the stops the "trolley" makes--and the traffic. But, hey, it's fun!

Perhaps Schaumburg should nix the trolley project and hire the good folks at Taxi Azteca to shuttle people around? After that, they can then begin to get serious about dealing with the suburban transportation crisis by exploring actual, equitable remedies as opposed to funneling public funds down an ineffective simulacrum.